[recycled material - first appeared here]
An issue I frequently harp on is that of language use. While precision with instruments is essential to good measurement, precision with language is crucial to defining variables, crafting hypotheses, and developing theories. Unfortunately, when it comes to educating the public about scientific findings, many writers “sexy” things up by playing fast and loose with words. Other times the problem may consist of a lack of good words to describe the phenomena in question.
When a writer lacks a good, tight-fitting word, he or she doesn’t just leave a void in the sentence. They work with what they’ve got. “Sorry, we don’t have this word in a size 9, we’ll have to go with an 11 and add some fill.” The more responsible and scientific thing to then do is to “add some fill,” to explain how the word doesn’t quite fit, and in doing so, outlining and better filling the void.
Case in point — an article from ScienceDaily bearing this title: Scientists Show Bacteria Can ‘Learn’ And Plan Ahead.
Okay, we’ve got half-quotes around learn. So the bacteria don’t learn as we customarily think of learning. What about plan ahead? Can bacterial truly do that as we do? Or is more explanation needed?
In the article we find many loose-fitting words in need of further explanation.
Bacteria can anticipate a future event and prepare for it, according to new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
How do they anticipate? What do they do to prepare? Explanatory paragraphs further confuse as much as they clarify:
Their findings show that these microorganisms’ genetic networks are hard-wired to ‘foresee’ what comes next in the sequence of events and begin responding to the new state of affairs before its onset.
the scientists found that when the wine yeast feel the heat, they begin activating genes for dealing with the stresses of the next stage.
After reading the article more closely a second time, I have a better understanding of the research, and the meaning of the words used to describe it. I may be wrong, for this is not my area of specialty, but the underlying science seems to be about a type of epigenetic change in bacteria.
What does epigenetic mean? Good question. The Wikipedia entry is quite clear on the matter. It fills the shoe of that term nicely.
In biology, the term epigenetics refers to changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, hence the name epi- (Greek: over; above) -genetics. These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell’s life and may also last for multiple generations. However, there is no change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism;instead, non-genetic factors cause the organism’s genes to behave (or “express themselves”) differently.
Notice how the loose-fitting behave was tightened parenthetically? That is good science writing. And let’s end with the good.